Jared Hunt column: ‘Backpack Index’ records jump in school costs

For parents, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

For students — not so much.

With school starting next month, the back-to-school shopping season is upon us. And while parents may be looking forward to sending their little angels back to classes on a daily basis, they might not like what they have to pay to get their kids ready to go.

Earlier this week, Huntington Bank released its eighth “Backpack Index,” which measures the costs associated with sending K-12 students to school each year. That includes the costs of supplies like notebooks, folders and calculators, as well as field trip and school fees and the costs of participating in sports and band.

To parents’ dismay, the index this year saw some of its biggest year-over-year cost increases in its eight-year history.

Parents of middle school children can expect to pay nearly 20 percent more for supplies and school costs this year, according to the index. Costs for elementary schoolchildren increased by 11 percent, while the cost for high school students increased by about 5 percent.

The increases in all three categories far outpaced the economy’s overall 2.1 percent inflation increase, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, over the same time period. Meanwhile, parents’ average hourly earnings rose just 2.05 percent over the same time, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“With the slow growth in wages, it is difficult for many families to meet the rising costs of sending children to school,” said George Mokrzan, Huntington Bank’s director of economics.

Huntington staff compile the list each year by obtaining classroom supply lists from a cross-section of schools throughout the six states it serves — West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky — and compiling these into one representative list of required supplies and fees.

The costs are then determined by selecting moderately priced items at online retailers.

The most expensive supply for high school and middle school students is a $129.99 TI-84 graphing calculator. The index noted more middle schools are requiring graphing calculators for students, since Algebra and other subjects are now being taught earlier in schools. That helped bump up costs for those students.

The most expensive fee came from a one-year music instrument rental (priced at $335-345). High school students also face costs from ACT, SAT and AP testing materials.

The average elementary school parent could expect to pay $642 for all of their child’s supplies and fees, with costs increasing to $918 for middle school parents and topping out at $1,284 for parents of high schoolers.

Huntington said most of the general increases in the Backpack Index this year were the result of fee hikes for standardized testing as well as school fees for field trips and pay-to-play fees for sports. Parents of high and middle school students may also have to buy their children computer tablets, as more schools are now using those devices in the classroom.

Since the bank first introduced the index in 2007, costs have cumulatively increased 83 percent for elementary school students, 73 percent for middle school students and 44 percent for high school students.

Though there are increases this year, the bank said parents can take some steps to save money.

“We recommend that parents begin to take advantage of sales for classroom supplies and activities from now until September in order to save money,” Mokrzan said.

The bank recommended starting early, shopping around, checking newspaper circulars for the best deals, try to recycle supplies bought in the past for older kids and ask neighbors and friends if they have old instruments or sports equipment they are no longer using.

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